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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

The Eco-Truth About Leather

Chic material generates pollution far and near

What are the environmental consequences of leather? Are there any good alternatives?

–Brianna Jacobs, Somerville, Mass.

Leather is everywhere — from shoes and belts, to purses, wallets, jackets, furniture and car seats. You may imagine that the leather that finds its way into our wardrobe and living spaces is a byproduct of the meat industry. Cows are the most popular animals to use for leather goods, but most of our leather is sourced from overseas, from countries like China and India. There, a host of animals — including horses, deer, sheep and, in more exotic cases, alligators or snakes — become raw material for our bags and belts.

Environmentalists have several reason to forgo leather. Processing leather requires copious amounts of energy and a toxic stew of chemicals including formaldehyde, coal tar and some cyanide-containing finishes. Tanning is pollutant-laced and can leave chemicals in the water supply (as described in the best-selling book and popular movie, A Civil Action) and on the hands and in the lungs of developing-world workers.

Tanneries are top polluters on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list, which identifies the most critical industrial sites in need of environmental cleanup. Due to their toxicity, reports California retailer Organic Leather, “many old tannery sites can’t be used for agriculture, or built on, or even sold.”

Organic leather offers a return to the tanning practices of old — using animals that are organically fed and humanely raised and a tanning process that uses plant tannins, vegetable tannins or smoke to cure the leather with zero toxicity in the process.

But with the wealth of fashionable faux leather alternatives, there’s no need to ever wear animal skins. Cruelty-free fashions have advanced with variations on every style of handbag, wallet, belt and boot. Online vegan boutique Alternative Outfitters has a version of the Ugg boot made with microsuede shearling on the outside and synthetic wool inside. Iowa-based Heartland Products sells western-style non-leather boots and non-leather Birkenstock sandals. Science has come up with plenty of comfortable, durable alternatives to materials made with animal products. These include vegan microfiber, which claims to match leather in strength and durability, and Pleather, Durabuck and NuSuede.

Products made with these synthetic materials tend to be less expensive than their leather counterparts and are being produced by major manufacturers like Nike, whose Durabuck athletic and hiking shoes “will stretch around the foot with the same ‘give’ as leather … and are machine washable,” according to the company. You won’t need to adjust your style, either. offers styles from purple faux snakeskin peep-toe pumps for hitting the clubs to hemp sneakers with recycled outsoles that look skate park-ready, to distinctive Pleather bags and versatile woven belts.

For more information:

• Alternative Outfitters:

• Heartland Products:

• Organic Leather:

• Vegetarian Shoes and Bags:

Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at or e-mail Read past columns at:

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